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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

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August 31, 2023updated 08 Sep 2023 10:39am

Former editor argues support for local news should be directed outside major publishers

Former editor Michael Gilson says local news giants may not be worth saving.

By Michael Gilson

The UK’s local news industry is dominated by a few major publishing companies. A former editor of titles now owned by National World and Newsquest, Michael Gilson, argues that the help the industry needs to survive would be better directed elsewhere.

Michael Broomhead’s lament was by no means the first and it will definitely not be the last, but it has stuck in my head.

Speaking about the wave of staff departures from National World earlier this month, Broomhead was quoted as saying: “As time goes on, I fear we will only see even more cost-cutting, more axing of staff and more gutting of titles. As a result, even more people will turn away from us. Revenues will decline even further. And then what? Where are we heading?”

It is a good question – one made even more poignant by the fact that Broomhead had just quit what he thought was his dream job after four months.

The digital journalist had launched National World’s Derby website and was looking forward to creating a first-class new service for the city. Reality hit him hard. As the only member of staff, he soon found the workload unsustainable and quit to preserve his sanity.

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Broomhead’s story broke in a pretty depressing week – even by the standards of local media news. The appropriately named media research company Enders predicted industrial newsprint would enter its final phase within the next three to five years and, as a result, a transformation to digital-only outlets would be necessary.

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“All is not lost”, the report said, trying to lift the spirits. Those who spotted the juxtaposition between the Enders report and Reach PLC’s half-year results announced the month before – which reported digital revenue down 16% to £60m while print is at £217m – would struggle to find reasons to be cheerful.

And the public is starting to notice it.

In the city where I live, we have had years of unchecked growth of executive homes that are altering the face of the place and tons of untreated sewage pumped into our beautiful natural harbour to the point we can no longer risk swimming in it. But the reporting and challenging of both these issues has been pretty sketchy at best. Those who know the trade I’m in have begun to ask me why.

Importance of ‘scarecrow journalism’

In a paper on the future of media from Columbia University in the US, the authors memorably used the term “scarecrow journalism” to describe how the mere presence of reporters in a locality acts as a deterrent for potential wrongdoing. In many fields in the UK, the crows are pecking untroubled.

The problem with trying to answer Broomhead’s question is that too many times we come at it from the wrong angle. In looking for possible solutions, we keep referring to the practice of journalism as an “industry” and we allow this “industry” to dominate the debate. Thus, we focus our entire energy on what we have now.

And, in my opinion, at almost all levels that is a dismal scene dominated by a handful of husk-like companies led by overpaid chief execs employing ever-decreasing numbers of low-paid but blameless reporters to populate substandard platforms.

Why do we start from the point that these companies are worth saving? They are not. And the more we talk about this, the more we are failing to focus on ways that new journalism might emerge. In other words, there is much to be said for letting the whole rotting edifice collapse and see what crawls from the rubble.

These publishers rarely hesitate to moan about the unfairness of the tech giants’ hold on the means of communication or to plead for more government help, which usually comes in the form of more advertising, or lambast the beleaguered BBC for encroaching on their patches.

There appears to be little in the way of quid pro quo suggested for any help they might receive. The possibility of throwing money and resources at these dying beasts doesn’t seem to involve any kind of audit over where the money might be going or taking a closer look at the pay ratio between the CEO and junior reporter, for instance.

Proper debate on future of journalism ‘stymied’

We’ve had one or two stabs at looking at the future of journalism in recent years, with one or two good ideas, but proper debate on them has been stymied.

A penny for the thoughts of Frances Cairncross? Her report into the future of news was released four years ago; a fair amount of time for the dust to pile up on it. Cairncross was a mixture of the good and the bad.

More tax relief for publishers? Not for me!

Online platforms entering into commercial agreements with news providers overseen by a regulator? Ok, something there.

An Institute of Public Interest News to promote quality journalism that will eventually be backed with innovation funding for all players, big and small? Yes, surely this is worth a further look.

Yet almost a year later, the Government kiboshed the idea, claiming it wasn’t its place to decide what constitutes public interest news – despite the fact that this was not what was proposed.

The “industry” bleats about any threat of statutory involvement in its business (unless it’s getting those tax breaks, of course) but Cairncross wasn’t suggesting a Leveson-style legal cost punishment for those who don’t agree to be regulated by royal approval. The promotion of quality news standards backed by funding for innovation, even to new entrants, was a threat to the “free market” for the “industry”.

Earlier this year, the Commons culture committee came the closest to getting at the truth.

Accusing the larger publishers of “compromising the quality” of journalism, the Sustainability of Local Journalism report noted that existing financial support went largely to the big guys, with little support for new entrants thus “stifling much-needed innovation”. It also suggested a Cairncross-style public interest news fund – that alone is enough to guarantee this report will join the latter on the shelf.

‘This debate cannot be confined to the industry, everyone has a stake in this’

One of the problems with suggesting that we abandon any proposal to build scaffolding around the news “industry” is that it still employs thousands of journalists, albeit a rapidly declining number.

Many are rightly proud of their work and are certainly more multi-skilled than me. I should know because, for more years than I care to remember, I have been a judge of Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards, including the regional category. I have seen some stunning multimedia work. In a funny way, that is why I believe many of these people can crawl from the rubble and start again.

What I don’t see at any level is enough of it.

Enough public interest journalism, where enough time and campaigning zeal have been invested.

There still might be a bright future for good, young journalists and we will need them because the next big debate has to involve the public.

What do they want? As mentioned, many of them are noticing the decline but do they care enough to support a new approach or are they happy for the chief execs, politicians and water company bosses to sleep easy in their beds? The democratic deficit to remain?

I don’t believe so. Every society experiences corrections from time to time. The needs of communities (of interest and geography) simply to know will rise again and a new journalism, equipped with the old-fashioned skills of the troublemaker together with the new technologies to deliver the eyeballs, must be ready.

We need to allow the “industry” companies to wither and let the top brass enjoy their retirements. Then we can look for alternative funding models, grants, charitable endowments and yes, let’s have the Institute of Public Interest News. Let it go on a campaign of awareness and support start-ups.

I’d like to see some of the universities with excellent journalism centres be given government help to establish news outlets in their patches, using students and young journalists. Think how galvanised those students would be to be writing real stuff for real people rather than waiting to graduate and heading straight for the communications “industry”.

A while back I knew a chief executive of a public sector body who was so concerned about the democratic deficit in his region that he seriously suggested to me a number of organisations could fund a blind trust to build a journalism centre. He missed getting pelters from the local press. He wanted the scarecrows back.

Ten years ago, I would have been instantly aghast, but as I took the train home that night I began to see merit in the idea. As I peered out of the window on my 40-minute journey home, I calculated there were about three journalists covering the entire route.

I don’t really care what platform any of this new stuff is to be found on as long as it reaches its market.

I confess I still believe there’s a space for an intelligent print publication (weekly or monthly) that tells me stuff I didn’t know. None of my journalist friends are with me on this one but it doesn’t really matter. I’m not the one who will build this future: the young, those left and those attracted will do that.

So, we need to start the debate about how this country is served by journalism: the fundamentals of holding the powerful to account at all levels of society, how we might recognise the triumphs and tragedies and illuminate the injustices that need righting.

This debate cannot be confined to taking evidence from the “industry”; everyone has a stake in this.

The new government must commit itself to proposals to help re-energise local and regional democracy through journalism and the “industry” should be only one voice at the table. 

The news about the news is getting worse. If we carry on like this, hoping that the answers might emerge from those that helped bring us to this desperate point, one thing is absolutely for sure: Michael Broomhead will never get his answer.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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